Interview--John Zerzan

John Zerzan may well be the most extreme author on the planet. It is somewhat ironic that the release of the Unabomber's Industrial Society and its Consequences should have brought Zerzan's views to national attention--ironic because his writings are far more extreme than those of the bomber he was believed to have influenced. For Zerzan, humanity's fall from grace did not commence with industrialism nor even with agriculture, but in the embrace of symbolic culture, i.e., language, art, and number. Culture, rather than being viewed as our great emancipator, is a mediation which distances us from a sensual embrace of reality, our capacity to realize ourselves within the moment. Language is communication become subject-bound, art is a stand-in for an infinitely more rich reality, number is the practice of an illusory sameness which drains our world of interest.

His essay collections, Elements of Refusal and Future Primitive, map a primitivist critique he has been pursuing in the anarchist milieu for the past two decades. His recent fame, commencing with a New York Times article and continuing with radio and television interviews, largely focus on his status as one of the few critics of technology who has not denounced the Unabomber from the outset. But his perspective goes deeper than this. With the advent of a world based on biotechnology and genetic engineering, Zerzan may stand in the tradition of the Taoist sages, Diogenes, and Rousseau as the last of the great exponents of the unfettered wild man--or perhaps he's the first in a new tradition whose impact has yet to be seen.

Q: Environmentalism has always been a rather depressing topic for me . By contrast, primitivism has always seemed empowering in its strivings to reconcile the tensions between humans and the natural world. Instead of being at odds with nature, we seek to realize our desires in a ways that our world of television and strip malls can never fulfill. What comparisons would you make between traditional environmentalism and primitivism?

A: I like the distinction you make here, which seems to me a fruitful one. To me primitivism provides a grounding for environmentalism. It refers, as a touchstone or inspiration, to the couple of million years during which humans lived in harmony with the environment, not as an alien power over it.

        Environmentalism too often stays with the reformist outlook of only seeing so many issues. A sense of the long history of the problem helps, however, in seing the origins of the degradation of nature and how all its facets are thus linked.

Q: Though you have critiqued such fundamentals of civilization as art, language, and number, you have so far refrained from a critique of tool use . This is interesting, as most would see the use of tools as a direct precursor to our technological society. At what point would you see tool use culminating in alienated activity?

A: The assertion is often made that there is a smooth continuum between the use of simple tools and the high-tech world of today, that there is no qualitative distinction that can be made anywhere along this line of development, no place to "draw a line" separating the positive from the negative.

        But my working hypothesis is that division of labor draws the line, with dire consequences that unfold in an accelerating or cumulative way. Specialization divides and narrows the individual, brings in hierarchy, creates dependency and works against autonomy. It also drives industrialism and hence leads directly to the eco-crisis.

        Tools or roles that involve division of labor engender divided people and divided society.

Q: What examples does the past offer us of people who abjured a given level of technology in favor of a more holistic and natural lifestyle?

A: A North American example of people abjuring a technicized or domesticated existence is that of the colonists "gone to Croatan." [This refers to the colonists inhabiting the first English colony at Roanoke, who abandoned it to live with a local Indian tribe. They left the inscription "gone to Croatan," referring to the tribe--J.F.] Evidently quite a few Europeans abandoned civilized outposts in the 17th and 18th centuries and joined various Native American communities.

Q: Your writings would seem to posit a Golden Age for humanity during much or all of the Paleolithic. And yet I don't feel your ideas are contingent upon the idea of a past Eden in the most extreme and literal sense. Life may once have been far more immediate and fulfilling, but there had to have been some flaws at some level to bring us to the present. I am curious to what extent you feel attached to the idea of a past utopia (which is clearly impossible to completely prove), as opposed to the application of useful concepts from the past on a present-value basis.

A: I think you are right to suggest that we should avoid idealizing pre-history, refrain from positing it as a state of perfection. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer life seems to have been marked, in general, by the longest and most successful adaptation to nature ever achieved by humans, a high degree of gender equality, an absence of organized violence, significant leisure time, an egalitarian ethos of sharing, and a disease-free robusticity. Thus it seems to me instructive and inspiring, even if imperfect and and perhaps never fully known to us.

Q: One of the most frequently asked questions regarding primitivism is whether its adherents seek a literal return to primitive lifeways, or are simply mining the past for useful concepts.

A: [Detroit anarchist paper] Fifth Estate, in its partial critique of civilization, has long insisted that a return to non-civilization is not what they see as either possible or desirable. I am not convinced that a real "return" should be ruled out. If not a literal return, then what? That is, I see it as an open question.

Q: Well, let’s assume for the moment that a literal return to a primitive state is desirable. Your writings have gone so far as to critique art, number, even language. How would you visualize a world, say, without language?

A: Thinking of a world without language entails an enormous speculative leap. From where we are now it is extremely difficult to posit or fathom a life-world based on non-symbolic communication, though of course some of that exists even now. Freud guessed that a sort of telepathy held sway before language; lovers need no words, as the saying goes. These are hints in the direction of unmediated communication. I’m sure you can think of others!

Q: Several critics have charged that your rejection of symbolic culture leaves the potential radical without a basis for challenging the existing order.

A: My tentative position is that only a rejection of symbolic culture provides a deep enough challenge to what stems from that culture. I may be wrong, but so far haven't seen persuasive grounds for abandoning this point of view. And even if it turns out to be wrong-headed maybe the debate will be fruitful in unintended ways.

Q: What is your response to people who claim that the course of technological progression is irreversible?

A: It is quite possible that it is irreversible, but the only way to know is to challenge it. If one concludes that the course of techno-progress is proving disastrous then one is obliged to stop it, to reverse it. This is a matter of basic morality, it seems to me.

Q: I think it is interesting to note how little genuine and constructive criticism is aimed at technology, perhaps making the sentiment that it is irreversible self-fulfilling. Everywhere one can find criticisms of almost any aspect of technological society, but rarely one that faces the whole.

A: How very much opposes a critique of the whole! For example, one of the cardinal tenets of the reigning postmodern ethos is rejection of the totality, rejection of the very idea that we can grasp the whole.

        And in general the system has never exactly rewarded such oppositional, against-the-grain thinking. The culture of denial is very strong—think of how extremely little gets questioned in the dominant political discourse. Very hard to get published, very hard to break the monopoly of enforced ignorance. And yet reality, I think is starting to force an opening. We hear some, not many, but some voices who do confront the whole picture, its fundamental character.

Q: Your response to the usual claim that technology is neutral.

A: Technology has never been neutral, like some discreet tool detachable from its context. It always partakes of and expresses the basic values of the social system in which it is embedded. Technology is the language, the texture, the embodiment of the social arrangements it holds together. The idea that it is neutral, that it is separable from society, is one of the biggest lies available. It is obvious why those who defend the high-tech death trap want us to believe that technology is somehow neutral.

Q: Must not the gradual abandonment of technology occur on a worldwide basis, lest we become vulnerable to those who won't drop the reins?

A: Yes, it does seem necessary that an anti-tech movement become global as quickly as possible for it to succeed. The system of technology and capital is global and highly interdependent, and is only as strong as its weakest link. To this fact must be added the spreading disenchantment with the "promise" of technology. The two are, or will be, a potent combination for our side.

Q: Do you think the general population is more leery of technology than our so-called intelligentsia?

A: Everyone today is pretty saturated by media and its constant pro-tech message at every level. But those the Unabomber manifesto calls "oversocialized" are perhaps more apt to be middle class intelligentsia and for that reason are probably less leery of technology's siren song.

Q: Any thinker(s) or theorist(s) you would like to take to task for a lack of understanding of the issues concerning technology?

A: There are still all too many theorists who seem to little understand the question of technology. Many if not all postmodern "thinkers" avoid the issue for the simple reason that they contest nothing, rejecting the very idea of oppositional thinking. Accepting everything in their cynical, reltivist way, they (e.g. Baudrillard) certainly do not face technology or resist it.

        On the other hand, for example, I recommend Lorenzo Simpson's Technology, Time and the Conversations of Modernity, which shows how technology--with its intellectual counterpart, postmodernism--empties out social existence and creates a climate of meaningless.

Q: There has been surprisingly little opposition to the installation of surveillance cameras throughout cities in the U.S.. What do you think might be the implementation of a technology which will finally provoke a serious backlash? The cloning of a human being? A computer implanted in the brain?

A: Many acquiesce regarding video surveillance out of personal safety concerns, apparently. But yes, one would think that human cloning or bionic brains would horrify most people. Luddites like me hope that new invasive heights of an ever-colonizing technology will bring folks to question its entire trajectory and logic.

        As Paul Shepard said of Gary Snyder's fondness for farming, he forgets that even very simple horticulture is but the first step on the road to genetic engineering. It's all about domestication, in other words. To step in and control or reshape nature is to commit to an orientation that brings us toward human cloning and all the rest.

Q: From what quarters have you found an unexpected support for a worldview which questions the value of technology?

A: A Latino friend of mine recently said that he thinks fewer Third World people are now hungering for the technology of the First World. Insofar as this is true, it would signal a shift of huge importance.

        Also, I notice some young people seeing through the lures of technology. This is less surprising, I suppose, and I don't know how many kids are open to "primitivist" ways of seeing, but this is a vital development that is spreading, at least to some degree.

Q: When did you yourself first see through the “lures of technology?” Have you always felt in opposition to it at some level? Was there some event or field of study that first prompted you to develop such an all-encompassing critique?

A: In the 1970s it slowly began to dawn on me, among others, that the concept of “revolution” was somehow very inadequate. This gnawed at me at a time when I was doing graduate work in social and labor history. The first “breakthrough” for me was in terms of the Industrial Revolution in England. Namely, it became clear that the factory system was introduced in large part as a means of social control. The dispersed craftsmen were deprived of their autonomy and brought together in factories to be de-skilled and disciplined. This shows that technology was not at all “neutral.”

        This discovery helped me begin to see how division of labor is basically disempowering and alienating. One needs to look at technology as a system which contains the deeper values of the social order it embodies. It is never simply a matter of “tools” or devices.

Q: What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?

A: Working on an essay on nihilism and trying to publish some books, too. There has got to be more anti-tech, even anti-civilization writing available to people. Even most anarchist publishers, like AK and Autonomedia, haven't caught on to the importance of or the interest in such thinking.

Q: I would like to ask you some questions regarding the Unabomber. When Industrial Society and its Future was first made available, you were recognized early on as a possible influence on the views of FC. Do you have any comments on the Unabomber treatise?

A: I consider Industrial Society and its Future an extremely important text. Basically, it shows how techno-society makes it impossible to attain either freedom or fulfillment. In very clear, accessible prose it explains the dead-end that is industrialism.

        Jacques Ellul is clearly a big influence, but I have no knowledge of any contemporary U.S. influences, anarchist or otherwise.

Q: Overall, what is your take on the Unabomber’s methods?

A: The Unabomber’s methods were the result of frustration. Evidently, he couldn’t find others who wished to confront the techno-madness, nor could he find a publisher for Industrial Society and its Future, despite efforts for years on both fronts.

Q: Having your own views linked with someone who is the subject of a massive investigation is not necessarily an enviable position. Did any unusual incidents occur prior to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski?

A: In the summer of '95, that is, the year before his capture, my house was broken into. The odd thing about it was the fact that my address book and some old gym shoes were taken, while a few portable and visible things of some value were left alone. Also that summer, some of my mail was intercepted somewhere along the line. In at least three cases that I verified, letters were sent but never arrived.

Q: You have met with Ted Kaczynski on a number of occasions, and continue to stay in contact with him. What is your impression of him on a personal level?

A: In my visits with Ted, I found him polite, friendly, very sharp, and possessing a sense of humor. He certainly put on no airs whatsoever and has seemed a very patient and self-disciplined person. Lawyer Tony Serra and I agree: Ted is not crazy.

Q: Were there any irregularities in his trial you would like to draw attention to?

A: There was no trial. He was coerced into accepting a plea agreement (for life in prison) after the judge denied both his attempt to fire and replace his defense attorneys and his attempt to defend himself. He was left with no other alternative but an "insanity" argument that he'd always rejected. What stands out is the fact that the ensemble of legal and political institutions stood together in their refusal to allow him to stand trial and present his ideas. The system demonstrated this by making clear that the death penalty was a lower priority than denying Ted his right to be heard.

        A very good treatment is Bill Finnegan's "Defending the Unabomber" in the March 16, 1998 New Yorker. Finnegan brings out the above points persuasively, and is the only writer who has done so.

Q: If I had to guess, I would say that very few people supported the Unabomber's actions, but many understood the sense of desperation and helplessness which drove him on. What has your impression been of popular sentiments towards the Unabomber? What, if any, reservations do the mass of his supporters have?

A: The media covering the case, especially the legal ordeal, have never seemed so craven or lap-dog in their reporting . They never once questioned the validity of the constant defense lawyer's leaks as to Ted's "delusional" thinking. The main examining shrink readily admitted to Bill Finnegan that she found Kaczynski delusional precisely on the grounds of his indictment of the technological system and its effects on people! An astoundingly political finding, needless to say.

        It is little wonder that the public, denied any independent thinking on the matter, probably didn't become real sympathetic to him. Another factor is that his lawyers told those of us who wanted to try to organize understanding and support to desist. Ted reluctantly went along with their counsel, trusting person that he was. (He trusted them and they lied to him, keeping him unaware until time ran out on his options that they were in fact doing just what they said they wouldn't do, namely portraying him as insane.) All this obviously worked against any fair reading of what he stood for.

Q: The Unabomber's exploits have engendered one of the deepest rifts in memory amongst anarchists, primitivists, and assorted eco-radicals. Your thoughts on the rift, and perhaps ways to move beyond it.

A: I'm not sure it is that deep a rift because I've seen signs that it has already healed somewhat. For example, there was a vocal pro-Ted presence at the '98 Round River Rendezvous, the annual Earth First! national gathering. And the latest Live Wild or Die (#7) actively identified with his cause and his defense. All along there has been resonance among some kids; I see this as having grown. I think there's less antipathy toward him, less fear of being identified with what the Unabomber represents.

        Of course, the larger reason that the rift has lessened--if it has--is that the anarchist milieu seems to be steadily more anti-tech and primitivist, especially among younger folks.

Q: Despite the current disavowal of leftism by many anarchists, the Unabomber's critique of leftism is more trenchant than anything else I have seen written by anarchists. Do you think anarchists still have a ways to go in rejecting all forms of authoritarianism masquerading as opposition?

A: Leftism--meaning a workerist, productionist orientation and the "organizer" mentality--is in decline everywhere. The demise of Class War in England in '97 and Love & Rage here in the U.S. in '98 are clear signs of it. Leftism is going the way of the dodo, though there are still some remnants around. AK Press is one example, with their penchant for embarassing relics like Bookchin and Chomsky.

Q: Industrial Society and its Future took a more explicitly psychological approach (e.g. discussion of surrogate activity, the effects of overcrowding, individual fulfillment, etc.) than is commonly seen in the literature that opposes technological domination. Do you feel that the Unabomber was emphasizing a much-needed but overlooked approach for those of us who question technology and its consequences?

A: Yes, Industrial Society and its Future is, I would say, essentially a psychology. It focuses on what is unavoidably happening to the individual as long as technology holds sway. This is its appeal and importance, the reason why it is a compelling read. I think its type of approach has been largely overlooked in the anti-authoritarian literature but is consonant with what people are interested in. So despite being uniformly trashed, it manages to get around, including its multiple translations throughout the world.

Q: What social effects, if any, have you seen stemming from the whole Unabomber affair?

A: The “social effects” of the Unabomber affair cannot be seen, I think, in isolation. In other words, the Unabomber is just one part of a larger phenomenon, the emerging awareness of the fate the technological system has in store for us and the planet. This spectacular case opened up vital, basic issues, which were already beginning to come to the fore.

Q: Finally, your thoughts on getting from where we are now to a better world.

A: The worsening situation for the biosphere, society, and the individual--the crisis at every level--is the strongest impetus for a rethinking of so many of the old commonplace assumptions and institutions. Division of labor, domestication, even the very components of our symbolic culture and civilization itself--all these now stand with question marks. When denial begins to collapse, we may well see a challenge to the existing order that will make the '60s movement seem very tame and superficial.